I Can’t Leave my CRM – Now What?

Nonprofit CRM

Are you struggling with your nonprofit CRM?

Constituent relationship management software (CRM) is a fundamentally important tool for helping nonprofits deliver their services and fulfill their missions. Unfortunately, as time passes and the needs of users and constituencies evolve, CRM platforms can become inefficient and bloated as patches and capabilities are added or revised in an effort to keep it current.

As more time, effort, and money is invested in an existing platform, organizations can become uneasy about what to do with it. Should we continue to struggle with our existing CRM, or is it time to consider replacing it? The specter of a costly and time-consuming overhaul or – gasp – complete replacement can be terrifying. Rather than contemplate what they see as the potential for major disruption, many organizations simply resign themselves to the struggle and continue to make do with the CRM system they have.

If this sounds like your organization, here’s the good news: chances are, your existing platform is not as bad as you might think. Virtually every CRM can use some level of streamlining and optimization. Once you’ve invested in implementing constituent relationship management software, it’s almost always smarter to streamline and optimize it periodically than to abandon what, at first blush, might seem to be an outdated platform.

The trick is determining what the underlying issues are that can be causing trouble and fixing them. Typically, there are three major CRM areas that can prove problematic for nonprofits:

  • Undocumented business processes
  • Lack of reports and dashboards
  • Incorrect code structure

Every nonprofit has a set of business processes for areas such as development, volunteers, and programs. Often a thorough review and strategic analysis of those processes can reveal weaknesses. In many cases, these can be resolved by assessing and improving the documentation of those processes and implementing best practices without having to make substantial revisions to the CRM infrastructure. In other cases, business process redesign and a few tweaks to your existing CRM can make a big difference.

Avoid becoming “customization crazy”

For some organizations, the best path to CRM optimization seems to be customization. However, many customizations are simply unnecessary – the core architecture and functionality of the platform can actually fulfill most of an organization’s requirements if your users are properly trained on your business processes and how to achieve them in your CRM, and they are given the time to familiarize themselves with the platform’s capabilities and use.

Unnecessary customization can occur when someone unfamiliar with nonprofits and their business goals needs works on constituent relationship management software. Often, they’ll build around a system without actually understanding core best practices as they relate to nonprofit fundraising and operations. As a result, a platform can get overbuilt and become unintentionally inefficient, requiring a lot of “undoing” to strip it back down to core functionality and efficiency.

Conduct an evaluation of your current state

As we stated earlier, sometimes the problem is not the CRM, it’s the processes used in conjunction with the platform and the training and experience (or lack thereof) of the people using it. But it’s critical to first make an informed decision regarding optimizing – or replacing – your CRM. It’s crucial not to make assumptions, but to work from a position of knowledge and understanding. This requires clearly defining your “pain” points and determining if you can improve your use of your constituent relationship management software to overcome the obstacles or if you need to take action on the platform itself.

There are two ways to conduct this evaluation: internally and externally. There are benefits and drawbacks to both:

Internal CRM evaluation

  • Can be faster and more efficient because individuals involved already know the system
  • Can be more effective and beneficial because the evaluators are familiar with the organization and its mission, processes, and constituents
  • Can be less expensive because you’re using in-house resources

However, drawbacks can include:

  • Project derailment resulting from office politics
  • Delays and distractions cause by overtaxed evaluators who have other jobs and responsibilities
  • Lack of objectivity because evaluators may have their own agendas

External (third party) evaluation

  • Can be more efficient and successful using an established, proven process
  • Can be more objective because the third party is not a stakeholder
  • Avoids office politics issues
  • Third party providers often have experience with similar organizations, providing a broader perspective

However, drawbacks can include:

  • Cost
  • Additional time needed to fully understand your organization’s structure, processes, and requirements
  • Issues of trust – does the third party have your organization’s best interests in mind or are they simply trying to sell a solution?

Regardless of whether you choose to conduct your CRM evaluation internally or externally, it’s important to have a plan in place to ensure that it is conducted efficiently and responsibly:

  • Prioritize. Determine all the various pains and challenges associated with the platform and prioritize them – what needs to be addressed first as a “must do” and what can follow as a “would be nice to do.”
  • Assign roles & responsibilities. Figure out who needs to be involved in the project and the roles they’ll play. Will one individual represent everyone in a particular department? Does the person acting as project manager have the time and focus to keep the project moving forward?
  • Determine metrics. Even a relatively simple streamlining or optimization project can benefit from having a stated goal and success criteria – a way to measure progress and determine if the project is ultimately successful.
  • Set deadlines. Establish a realistic timeframe for things to happen. If there are no deadlines, it’s easy for the project to drag on and eventually fizzle out.

Whatever you choose to do, it’s important to remember that it’s perfectly normal to streamline or optimize a CRM platform. Over time, all organizations and their requirements evolve and change – your CRM needs to evolve as well.

Understanding CRM for Nonprofits Download GuideIt’s equally important not to make assumptions about your platform. Assuming that your organization is “stuck with your CRM” may be wrong and based on false assumptions. The nonprofit constituent relationship management software ecosystem is also evolving rapidly, and your CRM may have new options you weren’t even aware of. This is where comprehensive evaluation and careful consideration come in. Armed with insights gleaned from analysis, you can be confident in making the right decision on the best way forward for your organization.

To learn more about the changing landscape of nonprofit CRM, download our FREE Executive GuideUnderstanding CRM for Nonprofits or check out this webinar on the same topic

About the Authors

Joel Mulder
Joel came to Heller with ten years of experience in development for nonprofits. Starting in tele-fundraising and data entry, Joel learned how organizations use technology as he worked his way up, eventually becoming the development operations manager for Allina Health... Read More
Cynthia Coleman
Cynthia joined Heller Consulting in 2009 and before that had been working with nonprofits and specializing in fundraising operations for more than seven years. Her drive to learn and expand her role from data entry to managing the donor database... Read More
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